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date: 19 October 2019

Denby, Elizabeth Marionfree

(1894–1965)
  • Lynne Walker

Denby, Elizabeth Marion (1894–1965), urban reformer, was born on 20 May 1894 at 95 Horton Road, Bradford, the second of the four daughters of Walter Denby (d. 1944), a doctor, and his wife, Clara Emma Bassett, a nurse. She was educated privately and at Bradford Girls' Grammar School (1906–13), where she excelled in drawing and music. Her recollections of the slums of industrial Bradford and the contrastingly pretty stone-built villages of the Yorkshire countryside never left her and served as motive and model for her later rethinking of urban environments.

During the First World War Denby studied in the department of social science and administration at the London School of Economics, taking a certificate in social science in 1916–17; this laid the foundations for her assiduous research methods and sociological approach to urban problems. After a period at the Ministry of Labour (1917–21) and co-ordinating volunteer work in Kensington (1923–5), she was appointed organizing secretary of the Kensington Housing Association (and Trust, founded 1926) from 1925 to 1933. In the slums of North Kensington she had responsibility for administration and fund-raising publicity and, most importantly, got to know the tenants and their problems, dealing daily with the practical and social implications of bad housing.

Following the Housing Act of 1930—which supported slum clearance and the provision of low-rent housing—Denby and her colleagues in the voluntary housing association movement publicized their agenda for urban reform through ‘New Homes for Old’ (1931), the first in a series of campaigning exhibitions. Denby was its organizing chairman, a role which she repeated in the larger landmark exhibition of 1932 at Olympia; she wrote the new building section (planning and equipment) of the exhibition catalogue. The exhibition featured a typical Denby argument using charts of statistics based on the 1931 census to address local authority and government policy-makers on overcrowding, population numbers, and housing needs. It also used a typical Denby contrast to reach a wider audience: a model of a slum room juxtaposed with a spacious, brightly furnished flat, designed by two women architects. It caused a sensation and contributed momentum to the public housing programme, which by 1936 was completing 5000 dwellings every month.

For Denby, ‘New Homes for Old’ proved a watershed: she wrote that 'My life, my interest, enjoyment and heart, [now] lay with new building, with construction and everything it meant' (autobiographical notes, Elizabeth Denby collection). She argued unrelentingly for cities rather than suburban estates or garden cities; the designing of communities rather than individual buildings; the rehabilitation of old properties instead of blanket demolitions; and especially for the provision of small terraced houses with gardens for families, rather than blocks of flats. With her own statistics on housing densities, she put her case forcefully but ultimately unsuccessfully in a talk in the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1936 (she was the first woman to address that body and later became an honorary associate member in 1942). However, she recognized the inevitability of flats in city centres, as well as their appropriateness for single people and childless couples; with Mozelle Sassoon as patron, she collaborated with the architect Maxwell Fry on the design of Sassoon House in Peckham (1933–4), a block of architecturally and socially innovative flats. In her self-invented role as housing consultant Denby represented the users' perspective and provided design suggestions and revisions based on her experience of tenants' needs.

Although she operated better as a campaigner, Elizabeth Denby became a tireless committee member, serving on committees for the Pioneer Health Centre (1934–48), the Peckham Health Centre (1934–5), the London county council's housing committee (1936), the Council for Art and Industry (1936–7), the utility furniture committee at the Board of Trade (1941–6), and the Modern Architectural Research Group. She was a catalyst for the social programme of modernism, advising the leading modernist architects Wells Coates (1935), Erno Goldfinger (1938), and Godfrey Samuel (c.1938), as well as local authorities and government agencies.

Denby's Leverhulme fellowship (1933) to study inter-war housing in eight European countries resulted in her most influential publication, Europe Re-Housed (1938). Her travels informed much of her housing practice, including Kensal House (1933–7), a scheme in North Kensington. With Fry as chief executive architect, they designed homes (albeit flats) as communities with new standards of light, fresh air, and equipment. In this urban village, Denby's user-centred approach challenged class-bound professional attitudes which assumed that tenants could not be entrusted with extra features and amenities. Designed into the project were clubs for teenagers and for parents, a sheltered garden for older people, allotments, ground-floor storage for prams and cycles and, most progressively, a nursery school with its own playground. Two balconies, one for family activities and one for clothes-drying, became a hallmark of Denby's planning. She was one of the founders of House Furnishing Ltd (1936–41), a shop near Euston, which supplied well-designed curtains and furnishings—a benefit normally reserved for middle-class clients—at a price Kensal residents could afford.

To promote her ideal of the terraced house and garden Denby turned architect, designing the All Europe House for the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1939. Although the Second World War intervened and limited its impact (only a few examples were built), her intention was to provide a prototype which could be tailored to all purses, built alongside flats if necessary, and scaled up and down according to need and purpose. During the war, Denby ran a small architectural practice from her home at 11 Princes Street, London, which undertook this and several other jobs, most importantly the planning of prefabricated housing using the Tarran system. Although she had no formal architectural training, Denby designed her own work, making the plans, elevations, and sections herself, while she collaborated with qualified architects who checked the drawings and supervised construction.

Maxwell Fry, who knew her well, described Denby as a 'passionate, combative, mercurial, but utterly devoted noble woman' (The Times, 9 Nov 1965). Now greatly esteemed and seen as an originator of tenants' participation and interdisciplinary collaboration, after the war and in spite of good connections with the Labour Party, she had difficulty making a place for her work. Although she designed a room for the important ‘Britain can make it’ exhibition of 1946, and intervened in the overspill debate of the mid-1950s on the side of tighter density planning in cities, her ideas were generally dismissed as unfeasible. She moved to Hythe in Kent in the 1960s, and died unmarried at Hythe Nursing Home on 3 November 1965. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered at Charing crematorium, Kent.

Sources

  • Building Research Establishment Library, Garston, Watford, Elizabeth Denby collection
  • E. Darling, ‘Elizabeth Denby, housing consultant: social reform and cultural politics in the inter-war period’, PhD diss., U. Lond., 2000
  • The Times (8 Nov 1965)
  • The Times (9 Nov 1965)
  • RIBA BAL, Godfrey Samuel MSS
  • P. Rathbone, The housing centre (1938)
  • biography file, RIBA BAL
  • E. Denby, drawing of All Europe House, 1939, RIBA BAL, Drawings Collection
  • E. Darling, ‘“Enriching and enlarging the whole sphere of human activities”: the work of the voluntary housing sector in housing reform in inter-war Britain’, Regenerating England: science, medicine and culture in the inter-war decades, ed. C. Lawrence and A. K. Meyer (2000)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • Catalogue of the drawings collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects: C–F (1972)
  • M. Fry, ‘Housing’, Architects' Journal (9 Dec 1937), 947–8
  • C. Johnson, ‘Elizabeth Denby’, BA diss., Sheffield Polytechnic, 1989
  • Lady Pedlen, ‘The evolution of the housing centre’, Housing Review, 33 (Sept–Oct 1984), 158

Archives

  • Building Research Establishment Library, Garston, Watford
  • Housing Centre Archive, London
  • NRA, priv. coll., papers
  • RIBA BAL, Godfrey Samuel MSS

Likenesses

  • photograph, repro. in Architects' Journal (11 June 1942)
Royal Institute of British Architects, British Architectural Library, London